A truck lift and an action track chair helped Jeff Austin return to farming after he was paralyzed from the waist down in 2013, but it was the example of other farmers that showed him farming was still possible. Through Ohio AgrAbility, Jeff connected with Bill Wilkins and other farmers who are dealing with paralysis and other physical challenges.
“The peer-to-peer support has been amazing,” says Jeff. During his recovery, he and his family visited the Wilkins farm and home near Troy, Ohio, and saw the adaptations Bill uses. Jeff’s wife, Kristi, says that visit helped the whole family realize they could adapt to Jeff’s paralysis.
“It really helped mentally,” Kristi explains, “and it was good for the kids to see.”
NEW MOVES: Since a bout with cancer left Jeff without the use of his legs, he’s found new methods for accessing farm machinery and vehicles. The first step is shifting from his wheelchair to his truck lift.
Jeff also appreciates the farming advice he got from Bill: “He told me to just do it.”
Jeff grew up helping his dad, Gary, with the family’s farm near Harrod in Allen County, Ohio. The family currently farms 450 acres, producing corn and soybeans. Jeff and Kristi’s children also raise a few hogs as fair projects.
Jeff became paralyzed in July 2013 because of cancer that compressed his spinal cord. He spent the next six months in and out of the hospital receiving treatment, and he figured his farming days were over.
Shortly before he was diagnosed, he had purchased a used combine, and, after it was delivered, drove it into the machinery shed. He remembers telling Kristi, “Now I’ll never drive that combine again. I’ll never get in that combine.” It took months of treatment and rehabilitation, but by fall 2015, he was back in the combine.
Besides connecting the Austins with other farmers dealing with similar challenges, Ohio AgrAbility helped Jeff and Kristi figure out what adaptive equipment would best fit Jeff’s needs. The organization also helped the Austins navigate the red tape as they applied for funding help from Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD). Explaining the needs of a farmer to someone with no farm background can be complicated, Kristi recalls. It helped having Randy Joseph, rural rehabilitation coordinator with Ohio AgrAbility, work with them to coordinate efforts with OOD.
Jeff has retrofitted machinery with hand controls, and he uses a telescoping hydraulic lift attached to his truck to access the truck seat as well as his farm machinery. “The truck lift will put me in any piece of equipment I want,” he says.
UP AND AWAY: The truck lift can help Jeff get up into any piece of machinery on his family’s farm. It’s also handy for trimming trees.
The lift also gives him back his independence, Kristi points out. “He can go completely by himself — that’s huge.”
Restoring his mobility made it easier for the couple to keep up with their children’s activities, adds Jeff. “This gave us the ability to divide and conquer again.”
Besides the truck lift, Jeff uses an action track chair, which will move him from a seated to standing position, to help him maneuver around his farm and shop. He also gets more help from Kristi and their four children: Caleb, who is a college sophomore; Mallory, who is a high school senior; Cole, who is a sophomore in high school; and Marah, who is a third-grader. “It’s more of a family effort,” Jeff says.
Maneuvering with his lift and track chair does require more time, and Jeff still needs help with some tasks. In the past, he sometimes didn’t want to take the time to teach his family how to do things on the farm. Now he needs their help, though, so he’s taught them more. “I’ve definitely grown more patient,” he adds.
Jeff has also changed his daily routine since he became paralyzed. He was not able to return to his off-farm job at the Lima Refinery, but he didn’t want to spend his days home alone. Now, he volunteers for the Allen East School District in the elementary school where Kristi teaches second grade. He also serves as assistant athletic director and assistant track coach. Jeff has become active in AgrAbility as well, volunteering at events like the Farm Science Review and sharing his experiences with other farmers with disabilities.
REMOTE CONTROL: Jeff controls the movement of his lift with a hand-held remote.
Jeff Austin’s AgrAbility mentor, Bill Wilkins, learned how to make his way in a wheelchair long before many of today’s adaptive technologies were available. He was paralyzed from the waist down in 1974 when a chain broke, causing a tractor to fall on him. He spent eight months in the hospital healing from his injuries and building his upper body strength, so he’d be able to move himself around.
When he left the hospital, Bill drove himself back to his family farm in a car adapted with hand controls. Today, he points out, it can take years for someone who is paralyzed to get licensed to drive again. That’s a problem, because the longer someone depends on others, the more difficult it becomes to become self-reliant again, he says. “The whole idea is independence.”
Back home, Bill proved he could continue to help with the farming when he used twine to pull himself onto a tractor and start plowing. His dad had already opened the field and then quit for the night. Bill secretly climbed on the tractor and worked through the night to finish plowing the field.
“Life’s not over when you break your back,” Bill stresses. “You have to adapt.” He went on to attend Ohio State University starting in 1975, and he married his wife, Shauna, in 1978. He then transferred to Utah State University, where he was the first person in a wheelchair to earn a bachelor’s degree.
He worked his way up the corporate ladder working for Farm Credit, and he bought his own 135-acre farm in 1993. In 2001, he and a partner started an appraisal company that now employs 15 people.
Bill advises people who have recently become disabled to fight for their independence. “It’s a choice you have to make — every day, every hour.”
Sometimes, he adds, technology can become a barrier to that feeling of independence. For instance, someone with a cellphone will just call for help when a problem arises. But without a cellphone, he says, “you’ll find your way out of it.”
He recalls once scooting three-quarters of a mile on his rear end when he ran out of gas. People might get themselves into predicaments, but they’ll learn to adapt, he says. “Use technology wisely,” he advises.
Bill has also resisted using an electric wheelchair because they are bulky, and they’re hard to get in and out of vehicles. In the past, he preferred to use his arms to propel himself around and pull himself in and out of vehicles and farm machinery. “I can get in and out of anybody’s vehicle,” he points out.
However, as he ages an electric wheelchair has become necessary, since his shoulders have started giving him trouble. “We all age and have to adapt to the limitations of age,” he explains.
Even though there are things he can’t do, Bill prefers to focus on what he is able to do. “Life is difficult, at best. If you concentrate on the difficult, you miss the best.”
AgrAbility assists with range of conditions
At a recent picnic for farmers involved with Ohio AgrAbility, some of the farmers rolled around in wheelchairs and others walked on artificial legs. But some had disabilities that are harder to spot, such as chronic pain, poor vision and joints stiff with arthritis. AgrAbility programs can assist farmers with a wide variety of disabilities, whether they are present at birth or the result of injury, illness or age, explains Laura Akgerman, disability services coordinator.
Ohio AgrAbility is coordinated jointly by OSU and Easter Seals of Greater Cincinnati. It’s part of a national program to help farmers with disabling conditions to continue to farm. Typically, after a farmer contacts the staff, one of the program coordinators makes a visit to the farm to review the farmer’s needs and discuss available services. Together, the farmer and program staff come up with a plan to help the farmer keep farming, Akgerman explains. The AgrAbility program does not provide funding for equipment or adaptive technology, but the staff can help with identifying and locating appropriate equipment, recommending work modifications, and submitting applications to OOD. The program also connects farmers with others who are farming with disabilities, and it coordinates meetings where farmers can share ideas and experiences.